Words fail me. I cannot possibly express in print just how bad a movie The Cookout is. I can say that I hardly ever laughed, that I left the theater feeling cheaply abused, that the woman in front of me exclaimed, “I wasted my money coming to see this movie!” 10 minutes before it was over, but none of that will capture just how awful it is. Would it help if I mentioned that, though it’s written, produced, and directed primarily by black filmmakers, it depicts almost every black character as greedy, spendthrift, lazy, and ill-mannered while the few white characters are depicted as intelligent, mature, and reasonable? Or that, though it was co-written and co-produced by Queen Latifah, both her character and every other black woman in the film, save one, comes off as strident, cruel, and obsessed with latching onto a man’s money and prestige while the male characters are mostly passive Walter Mitty types? Where is all this hateratin’ coming from?
This is the first film from director Lance Rivera, and of the six writers credited variously for their contributions to the story or screenplay, none have any former writing credits. This should come as no surprise, as the structure of the film is a mess. Five minutes in, the central characters (Storm P as basketball star Todd Anderson, and Jenifer Lewis and Frankie Faison as his parents) announce in unison, “We’re having a family cookout!” and the audience is primed to cut straight to the cookout, or at least the day of; instead we watch for another 35 minutes as pointless subplots and nattering bits of unfunny comic business are introduced. Many elements are set up in a way that suggests they’ll be running gags but are then abandoned. Others, sadly, are not. There’s absolutely no reason for the hillbilly cousins, who have no foundation in either reality or the popular imagination (I should think the filmmakers would be happy that the hillbilly — a particularly ugly stereotype, with its associations of incest and Ned-Beatty-rape — is an exclusively white figure). They are profoundly annoying and never amusing, but they just keep popping up.
When the cookout finally does arrive, it’s completely drowned out by the action of the various subplots slamming into one another. Didn’t anyone realize that if you call a movie The Cookout you should spend some time showing one? It could have saved the movie a little bit — allowing the audience to see the easy interaction of family and old friends would provide a respite from the noise of the movie’s other elements and allow the audience to connect with the characters. Instead, all they give us is Tim Meadows as the failed lawyer who expounds on cracked racial conspiracy theories and the two obese cousins turning uptight neighbor Danny Glover onto the weed he needs to loosen up his Clarence Thomas act.
That the humor in The Cookout is coarse and juvenile will come as a surprise to no one, but I was shocked to see how little bite it has, how shoddily and thoughtlessly it was conceived. There may be someone in the audience who goes into hysterics at the mere sight of a baby’s diaper soaked through with shit but, if so, I hope never to meet him. That’s just one scatological joke, but wait five minutes and I assure you there’ll be another. The movie contains a butler known only as “Jeeves,” but we are quite far from Wodehouse country.
As Todd’s mother, Emma, Jenifer Lewis refers to herself repeatedly as Lady Em. It’s a fitting, though likely unintentional, allusion, as she plays the role as Lady Macbeth, shamelessly and joylessly manipulating all around her. We’re intended to see her as a noble matriarch in a family of hooligans, but what I really wanted was to see her ground beneath the wheels of democracy. The most human character on screen is the one we’re intended to like the least. As Brittany, Todd’s gold-digging girlfriend, Meagan Good at least seems plausibly venal. The most honest lines spoken in the film are hers. When Todd breaks up with her, Brittany begs, “Please baby, I don’t want to work. I don’t want to pay bills. I want diamonds.” Finally, something we can relate to.
The worst part, though, is the movie’s ending. After pummeling the audience for an hour and a half with its dim view of human nature, it lays on treacly, insincere platitudes about the value of family. How the audience is meant to see any value in this group of shameless boors is a mystery to me.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
The Cookout / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()